Historical contingency and determinism are often cast as opposing paradigms under which evolutionary diversification operates. It may be, however, that both factors act together to promote evolutionary divergence, although there are few examples of such interaction in nature. We tested phylogenetic predictions of an explicit historical model of divergence (double invasions of freshwater by marine ancestors) in sympatric species of three–spined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) where determinism has been implicated as an important factor driving evolutionary novelty. Microsatellite DNA variation at six loci revealed relatively low genetic variation in freshwater populations, supporting the hypothesis that they were derived by colonization of freshwater by more diverse marine ancestors. Phylogenetic and genetic distance analyses suggested that pairs of sympatric species have evolved multiple times, further implicating determinism as a factor in speciation. Our data also supported predictions based on the hypothesis that the evolution of sympatric species was contingent upon ‘double invasions’ of postglacial lakes by ancestral marine sticklebacks. Sympatric sticklebacks, therefore, provide an example of adaptive radiation by determinism contingent upon historical conditions promoting unique ecological interactions, and illustrate how contingency and determinism may interact to generate geographical variation in species diversity.