B. L. Strehler wrote that "Any system that is not in thermodynamic equilibrium will approach that state at a rate that is a function of absolute temperature and the energy barriers to the rearrangements of components". Far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics allows a global systemic description of the cellular behaviour. This approach transcends the genetic and stochastic considerations on ageing as well as some evolutionary questions about ageing. The fundamental difference between the processes of development and ageing could reflect the intrinsic differences existing between biological systems where an increase in specific entropy production (SEP) is, respectively, still possible or not. The increase of the potential of SEP which probably occurred with evolution might explain in part why life span could increase. However, this SEP-driven increase in life span was possible only in those species which did not take advantage of their increased potential of SEP to ameliorate their reproductive capacity at the expense of possible increases in repair capacity. The criteria of stability of far-from-equilibrium open systems and the theory of attractors also help to sort the possible types of cellular stress responses: normal ageing, hormesis, stress-induced premature senescence, apoptosis or necrosis. © 2002 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.