What, if anything, is the functional significance of spatial patterning in cortical feature maps? We ask this question of four major theories of cortical map formation: self-organizing maps, wiring optimization, place coding, and reaction-diffusion. We argue that (i) self-organizing maps yield spatial patterning only as a by-product of efficient mechanisms for developing environmentally appropriate distributions of feature preferences, (ii) wiring optimization assumes rather than explains a map-like organization, (iii) place-coding mechanisms can at best explain only a subset of maps in functional terms, and (iv) reaction-diffusion models suggest two factors in the evolution of maps, the first based on efficient development of feature distributions, and the second based on generating feature-specific long-range recurrent cortical circuitry. None of these explanations for the existence of topological maps requires spatial patterning in maps to be useful. Thus despite these useful frameworks for understanding how maps form and how they are wired, the possibility that patterns are merely epiphenomena in the evolution of mammalian neocortex cannot be rejected. The article is intended as a nontechnical introduction to the assumptions and predictions of these four important classes of models, along with other possible functional explanations for maps. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Develop Neurobiol, 2015.