Life on earth is exposed to a background level of ionizing radiation from a number of sources, including beta and gamma radiation from geologic and biologic materials. Radiation dose from geologic emitters has changed because of the chemical evolution of the continental crust, changes in the relative abundances of 235U and 238U, and the radioactive decay of uranium, thorium, and 40K with time. The radiation dose from internal 40K has decreased by a factor of about eight because of changes in the activity concentration of 40K in potassium over the past 4 billion years. Radiation exposure from geologic materials has decreased from about 1.6 mGy y(-1) to 0.66 mGy y(-1) over the past 4 billion years, and radiation exposure to an organism with a potassium concentration of 250 mmol L(-1) has decreased from about 5.5 to about 0.70 mGy y(-1). Accordingly, background radiation exposure from these two sources has dropped from about 7.0 to 1.35 mGy y(-1) during the time life has existed on Earth. The conservative nature of mutation repair mechanisms in modern organisms suggest that these mechanisms may have evolved in the distant past and that organisms may retain some of the capability of efficiently repairing damage from higher radiation levels than exist at present.