Climate oscillations and episodic processes interact with evolution, ecology and biogeography to determine the structure and complex mosaic that is the biosphere. Parasites and parasite–host assemblages are key components in a general explanatory paradigm for global biodiversity. We explore faunal assembly in the context of Quaternary time frames of the past 2.6 million years, a period dominated by episodic shifts in climate. Climate drivers cross a continuum from geological to contemporary timescales and serve to determine the structure and distribution of complex biotas. Cycles within cycles are apparent, with drivers that are layered, multifactorial and complex. These cycles influence the dynamics and duration of shifts in environmental structure on varying temporal and spatial scales. An understanding of the dynamics of high-latitude systems, the history of the Beringian nexus (the intermittent land connection linking Eurasia and North America) and downstream patterns of diversity depend on teasing apart the complexity of biotic assembly and persistence. Although climate oscillations have dominated the Quaternary, contemporary dynamics are driven by tipping points and shifting balances emerging from anthropogenic forces that are disrupting ecological structure. Climate change driven by anthropogenic forcing has supplanted a history of episodic variation and is eliminating ecological barriers and constraints on development and distribution for pathogen transmission. A framework to explore interactions of episodic processes on faunal structure and assembly is the Stockholm Paradigm, which appropriately shifts the focus from cospeciation to complexity and contingency in explanations of diversity.