The soil-microbe system is one of the most diverse components of the terrestrial ecosystem. The origin of this diversity, and its relation to the life-sustaining processes that are mediated by the resident microbial community, is still poorly understood. The inherent complexities necessitate a theoretical framework that integrates ecological and evolutionary approaches and which embraces the physical heterogeneity of the soil environment. Such a framework is currently lacking, although recent advances in theory and experimentation are beginning to identify the essential ingredients. Here, we review and evaluate the relevance of current modelling approaches, and propose a new synthesis of an evolutionary ecology of life in soil. Key elements include an account of dispersal, horizontal gene transfer, and the consideration of the physical and biological components of soil as an integrated complex adaptive system.