Abstract The question of whether the ancestral bilaterian had a central nervous system (CNS) or a diffuse ectodermal nervous system has been hotly debated. Considerable evidence supports the theory that a CNS evolved just once. However, an alternative view proposes that the chordate CNS evolved from the ectodermal nerve net of a hemichordate-like ancestral deuterostome, implying independent evolution of the CNS in chordates and protostomes. To specify morphological divisions along the anterior/posterior axis, this ancestor used gene networks homologous to those patterning three organizing centers in the vertebrate brain: the anterior neural ridge, the zona limitans intrathalamica and the isthmic organizer, and subsequent evolution of the vertebrate brain involved elaboration of these ancestral signaling centers; however, all or part of these signaling centers were lost from the CNS of invertebrate chordates. The present review analyzes the evidence for and against these theories. The bulk of the evidence indicates that a CNS evolved just once – in the ancestral bilaterian. Importantly, in both protostomes and deuterostomes, the CNS represents a portion of a generally neurogenic ectoderm that is internalized and receives and integrates inputs from sensory cells in the remainder of the ectoderm. The expression patterns of genes involved in medio/lateral (dorso/ventral) patterning of the CNS are similar in protostomes and chordates; however, these genes are not similarly expressed in the ectoderm outside the CNS. Thus, their expression is a better criterion for CNS homologs than the expression of anterior/posterior patterning genes, many of which (for example, Hox genes) are similarly expressed both in the CNS and in the remainder of the ectoderm in many bilaterians. The evidence leaves hemichordates in an ambiguous position – either CNS centralization was lost to some extent at the base of the hemichordates, or even earlier, at the base of the hemichordates + echinoderms, or one of the two hemichordate nerve cords is homologous to the CNS of protostomes and chordates. In any event, the presence of part of the genetic machinery for the anterior neural ridge, the zona limitans intrathalamica and the isthmic organizer in invertebrate chordates together with similar morphology indicates that these organizers were present, at least in part, at the base of the chordates and were probably elaborated upon in the vertebrate lineage.