Explaining why ageing occurs is a solution to the longstanding enigma of the role of senescence in nature. Even after half a century of progress, this solution continues to unfold. Evolution theory argues strongly against programmed ageing, suggesting instead that organisms are programmed for survival, not death. In the current view, ageing results from the twin principles that (i) the force of natural selection declines with age, and (ii) longevity requires investments in somatic maintenance and repair that must compete against investments in growth, reproduction and activities that might enhance fitness. In addition to explaining why ageing occurs, the evolutionary theory also provides insight into the mechanisms underlying the complex cellular and molecular changes that contribute to senescence, as well as an array of testable predictions. Some of the most interesting current problems are to understand how the genetic factors influencing ageing and longevity are predicted to respond to fluctuating environments, such as temporary periods of famine, as well as to other kinds of spatial and/or temporal heterogeneity. Rapid progress in human genomics raises the prospect of greatly increasing our knowledge of the determinants of human longevity. To make progress in understanding the role and evolution of genetic and non-genetic factors in human longevity, we need more detailed theoretical studies of how intra-population variables, such as socio-economic status, influence the selection forces that shape the life history.