During his long research career in the field of aging, Dr Bernard Strehler developed a series of theories concerning the identity of genes that can promote longevity and their role in natural selection. As a tribute to Dr Strehler, we have taken this opportunity to summarize a selection of these theories and to illustrate how these insights have influenced our search for longevity genes within the immune system. The identification of longevity genes has proven difficult. We believe that, at least in part, this reflects the emphasis on the concept of survival of the 'physically' fittest. We have used the immune system as a model to demonstrate that, over and above the self-evident advantage of those genes that contribute the attributes commonly associated with survival of the 'physically' fittest, those genes that lead to a predisposition to cooperate also confer a competitive survival advantage. As the acquisition of cooperativity in a society is linked to support mechanisms provided by older individuals, the search for longevity genes should not be limited to those genes that are associated with extended expression of a youthful phenotype. Rather these studies should be expanded to include identification of those genes that regulate physiologic parameters that affect individual longevity, even if they do not correspond with the traditional view of reproductive competitiveness. At the societal level, longevity genes may encode attributes that regulate sociologic or psychological parameters that may contribute to a tendency to non-aggressive or cooperative behavior that leads to achievement of common goals necessary for the survival of the species. This view of the selection for longevity impacts the analysis of longevity genes and aging at the organismal level. Dr Strehler viewed organismal aging as an integrated functional state, in which he conceived the outcome as reflecting the net balance of functional decrementers and evolved compensatory features. We propose that, in more evolved species, the longevity genes will be those genes, or sets of genes, that counterbalance of age-related functional decrementers with the age-related manifestation of evolved compensatory features. Thus, as illustrated here through analysis of the immune system, the longevity genes may well be those genes that promote overall systemic cooperation and compensation within the immune system and associated systems, rather than the genes that prevent age-related alterations in only one or a limited number of pathways. © 2002 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.