Ehrlich and Raven formally introduced the concept of stepwise coevolution using butterfly and angiosperm interactions in an attempt to account for the impressive biological diversity of these groups. However, many biologists currently envision butterflies evolving 50 to 30 million years (Myr) after the major angiosperm radiation and thus reject coevolutionary origins of butterfly biodiversity. The unresolved central tenet of Ehrlich and Raven's theory is that evolution of plant chemical defenses is followed closely by biochemical adaptation in insect herbivores, and that newly evolved detoxification mechanisms result in adaptive radiation of herbivore lineages. Using one of their original butterfly-host plant systems, the Pieridae, we identify a pierid glucosinolate detoxification mechanism, nitrile-specifier protein (NSP), as a key innovation. Larval NSP activity matches the distribution of glucosinolate in their host plants. Moreover, by using five different temporal estimates, NSP seems to have evolved shortly after the evolution of the host plant group (Brassicales) (≈10 Myr). An adaptive radiation of these glucosinolate-feeding Pierinae followed, resulting in significantly elevated species numbers compared with related clades. Mechanistic understanding in its proper historical context documents more ancient and dynamic plant-insect interactions than previously envisioned. Moreover, these mechanistic insights provide the tools for detailed molecular studies of coevolution from both the plant and insect perspectives.