The neutral theory for community structure and biodiversity is dependent on the assumption that species are equivalent to each other in all important ecological respects. We explore what this concept of equivalence means in ecological communities, how such species may arise evolutionarily, and how the possibility of ecological equivalents relates to previous ideas about niche differentiation. We also show that the co-occurrence of ecologically similar or equivalent species is not incompatible with niche theory as has been supposed, because niche relations can sometimes favor coexistence of similar species. We argue that both evolutionary and ecological processes operate to promote the introduction and to sustain the persistence of ecologically similar and in many cases nearly equivalent species embedded in highly structured food webs. Future work should focus on synthesizing niche and neutral perspectives rather than dichotomously debating whether neutral or niche models provide better explanations for community structure and biodiversity.