The crystalline lens of the eye is a unique optical structure that continues to develop within the eye throughout life. This process of development results in the formation of a lens with a gradient refractive index that has important optical consequences, particularly in the control of spherical aberration. The optical characteristics of the vertebrate crystalline lens are reviewed in terms of environmental concerns and spherical aberration. Lens shape and relative size are determined by such factors as whether the eye is to be used in air or water and whether it is to be used under scotopic or photopic conditions. The continued growth of the lens through life can be related to whether the lens exhibits positive or negative spherical aberration. In general, spherical aberration, as measured using a split laser beam method with excised lenses, is minimized in species with life histories indicating superior resolution ability. In addition, lens optical quality, as indicated by zonular differences in focal length, deteriorates with lens age. While the embryonic and post-embryonic lens undergoes significant change in size, shape and refractive index distribution, it appears that focal constancy is maintained, at least in certain species. This finding may indicate a means of simplifying the process of emmetropization.