Maximum life span differences among animal species exceed life span variation achieved by experimental manipulation by orders of magnitude. The differences in the characteristic maximum life span of species was initially proposed to be due to variation in mass-specific rate of metabolism. This is called the rate-of-living theory of aging and lies at the base of the oxidative-stress theory of aging, currently the most generally accepted explanation of aging. However, the rate-of-living theory of aging while helpful is not completely adequate in explaining the maximum life span. Recently, it has been discovered that the fatty acid composition of cell membranes varies systematically between species, and this underlies the variation in their metabolic rate. When combined with the fact that 1) the products of lipid peroxidation are powerful reactive molecular species, and 2) that fatty acids differ dramatically in their susceptibility to peroxidation, membrane fatty acid composition provides a mechanistic explanation of the variation in maximum life span among animal species. When the connection between metabolic rate and life span was first proposed a century ago, it was not known that membrane composition varies between species. Many of the exceptions to the rate-of-living theory appear explicable when the particular membrane fatty acid composition is considered for each case. Here we review the links between metabolic rate and maximum life span of mammals and birds as well as the linking role of membrane fatty acid composition in determining the maximum life span. The more limited information for ectothermic animals and treatments that extend life span (e.g., caloric restriction) are also reviewed.