The programmed cell death (PCD) of developing cells is considered an essential adaptive process that evolved to serve diverse roles. We review the putative adaptive functions of PCD in the animal kingdom with a major focus on PCD in the developing nervous system. Considerable evidence is consistent with the role of PCD in events ranging from neurulation and synaptogenesis to the elimination of adult-generated CNS cells. The remarkable recent progress in our understanding of the genetic regulation of PCD has made it possible to perturb (inhibit) PCD and determine the possible repercussions for nervous system development and function. Although still in their infancy, these studies have so far revealed few striking behavioral or functional phenotypes.