Evolutionary theories of aging and longevity

ScientificWorldJournal. 2002 Feb 7:2:339-56. doi: 10.1100/tsw.2002.96.


The purpose of this article is to provide students and researchers entering the field of aging studies with an introduction to the evolutionary theories of aging, as well as to orient them in the abundant modern scientific literature on evolutionary gerontology. The following three major evolutionary theories of aging are discussed: 1) the theory of programmed death suggested by August Weismann, 2) the mutation accumulation theory of aging suggested by Peter Medawar, and 3) the antagonistic pleiotropy theory of aging suggested by George Williams. We also discuss a special case of the antagonistic pleiotropy theory, the disposable soma theory developed by Tom Kirkwood and Robin Holliday. The theories are compared with each other as well as with recent experimental findings. At present the most viable evolutionary theories are the mutation accumulation theory and the antagonistic pleiotropy theory; these theories are not mutually exclusive, and they both may become a part of a future unifying theory of aging. Evolutionary theories of aging are useful because they open new opportunities for further research by suggesting testable predictions, but they have also been harmful in the past when they were used to impose limitations on aging studies. At this time, the evolutionary theories of aging are not ultimate completed theories, but rather a set of ideas that themselves require further elaboration and validation. This theoretical review article is written for a wide readership.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aging* / genetics
  • Apoptosis
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cell Division
  • Geriatrics
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Longevity
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Mutation