Understanding why and how senescence evolved is of great importance in investigating the multiple, complex mechanisms that influence the course of ageing in humans and other organisms. Compelling arguments eliminate the idea that death is generally programmed by genes for ageing, but there is still a widespread tendency to interpret data in terms of loosely defined 'age regulation', which does not usually make either evolutionary or mechanistic sense. This review critically addresses the role of natural selection in shaping ageing within the life history and examines the implications for research on genetic pathways that influence the life span. It is recognised that in exceptional circumstances the possibility exists for selection to favour limiting survival. In acknowledging that, at least in theory, ageing might occasionally be adaptive, however, the high barriers to validating actual instances of adaptive ageing are made clear.
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