Essential hypertension is a "disease of civilization" but has a clear genetic component. From an evolutionary perspective, persistence in the human genome of elements capable of raising blood pressure presupposes their adaptive significance. Recently, two hypotheses that explicitly appeal to selectionist arguments, the "slavery" and "thrifty gene" theories, have been forwarded. We find neither completely successful, and we advance an alternative explanation of the adaptive importance of genes responsible for hypertension. We propose that blood pressure rises during childhood and adolescence to subserve homeostatic needs of the organism. Specifically, we contend that blood pressure is a flexible element in the repertoire of renal homeostatic mechanisms serving to match renal function to growth. The effect of modern diet and lifestyle on human growth stimulates earlier and more vigorous development, straining biologically necessary relationships between renal and general somatic growth and requiring compensation via homeostatic mechanisms preserved during evolution. Prime among such mechanisms is blood pressure, which rises as a compensation to maintain renal function in the face of greater growth. Since virtually all members of acculturated societies share in the modern lifestyle, the demands imposed by accelerated growth and development result in a populational shift to higher blood pressures, with a consequent increase in the prevalence of hypertension. We propose that hypertension is the product of maladaptation of highly genetically conserved mechanisms subserving important biological homeostatic needs. Elucidation of the mechanisms underlying hypertension will require approaches that examine the developmental processes linking growth to blood pressure.