The diet known as calorie restriction (CR) is the most reproducible way to extend the lifespan of mammals. Many of the early hypotheses to explain this effect were based on it being a passive alteration in metabolism. Yet, recent data from yeast, worms, flies, and mammals support the idea that CR is not simply a passive effect but an active, highly conserved stress response that evolved early in life's history to increase an organism's chance of surviving adversity. This perspective updates the evidence for and against the various hypotheses of CR, and concludes that many of them can be synthesized into a single, unifying hypothesis. This has important implications for how we might develop novel medicines that can harness these newly discovered innate mechanisms of disease resistance and survival.