Development has often been viewed as a constraining force on morphological adaptation, but its precise influence, especially on evolutionary rates, is poorly understood. Placental mammals provide a classic example of adaptive radiation, but the debate around rate and drivers of early placental evolution remains contentious. A hallmark of early dental evolution in many placental lineages was a transition from a triangular upper molar to a more complex upper molar with a rectangular cusp pattern better specialized for crushing. To examine how development influenced this transition, we simulated dental evolution on “landscapes” built from different parameters of a computational model of tooth morphogenesis. Among the parameters examined, we find that increases in the number of enamel knots, the developmental precursors of the tooth cusps, were primarily influenced by increased self-regulation of the molecular activator (activation), whereas the pattern of knots resulted from changes in both activation and biases in tooth bud growth. In simulations, increased activation facilitated accelerated evolutionary increases in knot number, creating a lateral knot arrangement that evolved at least ten times on placental upper molars. Relatively small increases in activation, superimposed on an ancestral tritubercular molar growth pattern, could recreate key changes leading to a rectangular upper molar cusp pattern. Tinkering with tooth bud geometry varied the way cusps initiated along the posterolingual molar margin, suggesting that small spatial variations in ancestral molar growth may have influenced how placental lineages acquired a hypocone cusp. We suggest that development could have enabled relatively fast higher-level divergence of the placental molar dentition.