The importance of a single genotype being able to produce different phenotypes in different environments (phenotypic plasticity) is widely recognized in evolutionary theory and its adaptive significance is clear. In most cases, the developing organism responds to an environmental cue by producing a selectively and immediately appropriate phenotype. One subset of phenotypic responses to environmental stimuli, however, does not necessarily provide an immediate selective advantage. Rather, these kinds of responses, which we call 'predictive adaptive responses' (PARs), act primarily to improve fitness at a later stage of development. We argue that PARs have had an important role in human evolution, and that their recognition and interpretation has major significance for public health.