The nearly neutral theory predicts that the rate and pattern of molecular evolution will be influenced by effective population size (Ne), because in small populations more slightly deleterious mutations are expected to drift to fixation. This important prediction has not been widely empirically tested, largely because of the difficulty of comparing rates of molecular evolution in sufficient numbers of independent lineages which differ only in Ne. Island endemic species provide an ideal test of the effect of Ne on molecular evolution because species restricted to islands frequently have smaller Ne than closely related mainland species, and island endemics have arisen from mainland lineages many times in a wide range of taxa. We collated a dataset of 70 phylogenetically independent comparisons between island and mainland taxa, including vertebrates, invertebrates and plants, from 19 different island groups. The rate of molecular evolution in these lineages was estimated by maximum likelihood using two measures: overall substitution rate and the ratio of non-synonymous to synonymous substitution rates. We show that island lineages have significantly higher ratios of non-synonymous to synonymous substitution rates than mainland lineages, as predicted by the nearly neutral theory, although overall substitution rates do not differ significantly.