Following kidney injury, repair can result in functional tissue becoming a patch of cells and disorganized extracellular matrix—a scar—or it can recapitulate the original tissue architecture through the process of regeneration. Regeneration can potentially occur in all animal species and humans. Indeed, the repair of portions of the existing nephron after tubular damage, a response that has been designated classically as cellular regeneration, is conserved in all animal species from the ancestral phases of evolution. By contrast, another type of regenerative response—nephron neogenesis—has been described in lower branches of the animal kingdom, but does not occur in adult mammals. Converging evidence suggests that a renal progenitor system is present in the adult kidney across different stages of evolution, with renal progenitors having been identified as the main drivers of kidney regenerative responses in fish, insects, rodents and humans. In this Review, we describe similarities and differences between the renal progenitor systems through evolution, and propose explanations for how progressive kidney adaptation to environmental changes both required and permitted neonephrogenesis to be given up and for cellular regeneration to be retained as the main regenerative strategy. Understanding the mechanisms that drive renal progenitor growth and differentiation represent the key step for modulating this potential for therapeutic purposes.