Aim To measure and quantify community phylogenetic structure to evaluate how evolutionary, ecological and biogeographic processes have shaped the distributions and assemblage of tropical and subtropical rain forest tree species across local, regional and continental scales. Location Australia. Methods We used 596 assemblage-level samples and 1137 woody species in rain forest vegetation sampled across two latitude regions (tropics and sub-tropics) and five distinct areas. Based on this dataset, we obtained and analysed species-level trait values (for leaf size, seed size, wood density and maximum height at maturity), measures of community phylogenetic structure and species turnover across space (beta) and evolutionary time (phylobeta). Results Phylobeta values showed that at continental scales (i.e. across the latitude regions combined) species replacement, as turnover in assemblages through time, was by more phylogenetically distant (i.e. less closely related) taxa. Within latitude regions replacement was by more closely related taxa. Assemblages of species were more phylogenetically clustered across the whole phylogeny (net relatedness index) and with respect to more recent divergences (nearest related taxon index) where the effects of historic disturbance (climatic oscillations) had been greater, and less clustered in long-term stable (refugial) locations. Local species composition in the stable wet tropics showed significant phylogenetic evenness, but there was no corresponding evenness in distributions of the ecological traits measured. Main conclusions Despite a shared evolutionary and biogeographic history, the two regions diverged from each other before the development of internal divergences. Phylogenetic evenness is more evident in long-term stable habitats (refugia) where species interact in conserved niches. Phylogenetic clustering is more evident where recolonization of more highly disturbed areas from historically reduced species pools reflects filtering of species into phylogenetically preferred habitats.