In the last decades, the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) have emerged as a vigorous field combining experimental, clinical, epidemiological and public health research. Its goal is to understand how events in early life shape later morbidity risk, especially of non-communicable chronic diseases. As these diseases become the major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, research arising from DOHaD is likely to gain significance to public health and economic development. But action may be hindered by the lack of a firm mechanistic explanation and of a conceptual basis, especially regarding the evolutionary significance of the DOHaD phenomenon. In this article, we provide a succinct historical review of the research into the relationship between development and later disease, consider the evolutionary and developmental significance and discuss the underlying mechanisms of the DOHaD phenomenon. DOHaD should be viewed as a part of a broader biological mechanism of plasticity by which organisms, in response to cues such as nutrition or hormones, adapt their phenotype to environment. These responses may be divided into those for immediate benefit and those aimed at prediction of a future environment: disease occurs in the mismatch between predicted and realized future. The likely mechanisms that enable plasticity involve epigenetic processes, affecting the expression of genes associated with regulatory pathways. There is now evidence that epigenetic marks may be inherited and so contribute to non-genomic heritable disease risk. We end by discussing the global significance of the DOHaD phenomenon and its potential applications for public health purposes.