A variety of ecological processes influence diversity and species composition in natural communities. Most of these processes, whether abiotic or biotic, differentially filter individuals from birth to death, thereby altering species' relative abundances. Nonrandom outcomes could accrue throughout ontogeny, or the processes that generate them could be particularly influential at certain stages. One long-standing paradigm in tropical forest ecology holds that patterns of relative abundance among mature trees are largely set by processes operating at the earliest life cycle stages. Several studies confirm filtering processes at some stages, but the longevity of large trees makes a rigorous comparison across size classes impossible without long-term demographic data. Here, we use one of the world's longest-running, plot-based forest dynamics projects to compare nonrandom outcomes across stage classes. We considered a cohort of 7,977 individuals in 186 species that were alive in 1971 and monitored in 13 mortality censuses over 42 y to 2013. Nonrandom mortality with respect to species identity occurred more often in the smaller rather than the larger size classes. Furthermore, observed nonrandom mortality in the smaller size classes had a diversifying influence; species richness of the survivors was up to 30% greater than expected in the two smallest size classes, but not greater than expected in the larger size classes. These results highlight the importance of early life cycle stages in tropical forest community dynamics. More generally, they add to an accumulating body of evidence for the importance of early-stage nonrandom outcomes to community structure in marine and terrestrial environments.