Apoptosis is orchestrated by the concerted action of caspases, activated in a minimal two-step proteolytic cascade. Existing data suggests that apical caspases are activated by adaptor-mediated clustering of inactive zymogens. However, the mechanism by which apical caspases achieve catalytic competence in their recruitment/activation complexes remains unresolved. We explain that proximity-induced activation of apical caspases is attributable to dimerization. Internal proteolysis does not activate these apical caspases but is a secondary event resulting in partial stabilization of activated dimers. Activation of caspases-8 and -9 occurs by dimerization that is fully recapitulated in vitro by kosmotropes, salts with the ability to stabilize the structure of proteins. Further, single amino acid substitutions at the dimer interface abrogate the activity of caspases-8 and -9 introduced into recipient mammalian cells. We propose a unified caspase activation hypothesis whereby apical caspases are activated by dimerization of monomeric zymogens.