Individual-based models (IBMs) allow the explicit inclusion of individual variation in greater detail than do classical differential and difference equation models. Inclusion of such variation is important for continued progress in ecological and evolutionary theory. We provide a conceptual basis for IBMs by describing five major types of individual variation in IBMs: spatial, ontogenetic, phenotypic, cognitive, and genetic. IBMs are now used in almost all subfields of ecology and evolutionary biology. We map those subfields and look more closely at selected key papers on fish recruitment, forest dynamics, sympatric speciation, metapopulation dynamics, maintenance of diversity, and species conservation. Theorists are currently divided on whether IBMs represent only a practical tool for extending classical theory to more complex situations, or whether individual-based theory represents a radically new research program. We feel that the tension between these two poles of thinking can be a source of creativity in ecology and evolutionary theory.