Apoptosis is a fundamental feature of multicellular animals and is best understood in mammals, flies, and nematodes, with the invertebrate models being thought to represent a condition of ancestral simplicity. However, the existence of a leukemia-like cancer in the softshell clam Mya arenaria provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the evolution of the genetic machinery of apoptosis. Here, we report the whole-genome sequence for M. arenaria which we leverage with existing data to test evolutionary hypotheses on the origins of apoptosis in animals. We show that the ancestral bilaterian p53 locus, a master regulator of apoptosis, possessed a complex domain structure, in contrast to that of extant ecdysozoan p53s. Further, ecdysozoan taxa, but not chordates or lophotrochozoans like M. arenaria, show a widespread reduction in apoptosis gene copy number. Finally, phylogenetic exploration of apoptosis gene copy number reveals a striking linkage with p53 domain complexity across species. Our results challenge the current understanding of the evolution of apoptosis and highlight the ancestral complexity of the bilaterian apoptotic tool kit and its subsequent dismantlement during the ecdysozoan radiation.