Ever since Hubel and Wiesel described orientation selectivity in the visual cortex, the question of how precise selectivity emerges has been marked by considerable debate. There are essentially two views of how selectivity arises. Feed-forward models rely entirely on the organization of thalamocortical inputs. Feedback models rely on lateral inhibition to refine selectivity relative to a weak bias provided by thalamocortical inputs. The debate is driven by two divergent lines of evidence. On the one hand, many response properties appear to require lateral inhibition, including precise orientation and direction selectivity and crossorientation suppression. On the other hand, intracellular recordings have failed to find consistent evidence for lateral inhibition. Here we demonstrate a resolution to this paradox. Feed-forward models incorporating the intrinsic nonlinear properties of cortical neurons and feed-forward circuits (i.e., spike threshold, contrast saturation, and spike-rate rectification) can account for properties that have previously appeared to require lateral inhibition.