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Human beings persist in an extraordinary range of ecological settings, in the process exhibiting enormous behavioural diversity, both within and between populations. People vary in their social, mating and parental behaviour and have diverse and elaborate beliefs, traditions, norms and institutions. The aim of this theme issue is to ask whether, and how, evolutionary theory can help us to understand this diversity. In this introductory article, we provide a background to the debate surrounding how best to understand behavioural diversity using evolutionary models of human behaviour. In particular, we examine how diversity has been viewed by the main subdisciplines within the human evolutionary behavioural sciences, focusing in particular on the human behavioural ecology, evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution approaches. In addition to differences in focus and methodology, these subdisciplines have traditionally varied in the emphasis placed on human universals, ecological factors and socially learned behaviour, and on how they have addressed the issue of genetic variation. We reaffirm that evolutionary theory provides an essential framework for understanding behavioural diversity within and between human populations, but argue that greater integration between the subfields is critical to developing a satisfactory understanding of diversity.