Although the role of Earth’s orbital variations in driving global climate cycles has long been recognized, their effect on evolution is hitherto unknown. The fossil remains of coccolithophores, a key calcifying phytoplankton group, enable a detailed assessment of the effect of cyclic orbital-scale climate changes on evolution because of their abundance in marine sediments and the preservation of their morphological adaptation to the changing environment1,2. Evolutionary genetic analyses have linked broad changes in Pleistocene fossil coccolith morphology to species radiation events3. Here, using high-resolution coccolith data, we show that during the last 2.8 million years the morphological evolution of coccolithophores was forced by Earth’s orbital eccentricity with rhythms of around 100,000 years and 405,000 years—a distinct spectral signature to that of coeval global climate cycles4. Simulations with an Earth System Model5 coupled with an ocean biogeochemical model6 show a strong eccentricity modulation of the seasonal cycle, which we suggest directly affects the diversity of ecological niches that occur over the annual cycle in the tropical ocean. Reduced seasonality in surface ocean conditions favours species with mid-size coccoliths, increasing coccolith carbonate export and burial; whereas enhanced seasonality favours a larger range of coccolith sizes and reduced carbonate export. We posit that eccentricity pacing of phytoplankton evolution contributed to the strong 405,000-year cyclicity that is seen in global carbon cycle records.