Positively charged repeat peptides are emerging as key players in neurodegenerative diseases. These peptides can perturb diverse cellular pathways but a unifying framework for how such promiscuous toxicity arises has remained elusive. We used mass-spectrometry-based proteomics to define the protein targets of these neurotoxic peptides and found that they all share similar sequence features that drive their aberrant condensation with these positively charged peptides. We trained a machine learning algorithm to detect such sequence features and unexpectedly discovered that this mode of toxicity is not limited to human repeat expansion disorders but has evolved countless times across the tree of life in the form of cationic antimicrobial and venom peptides. We demonstrate that an excess in positive charge is necessary and sufficient for this killer activity, which we name 'polycation poisoning'. These findings reveal an ancient and conserved mechanism and inform ways to leverage its design rules for new generations of bioactive peptides.