The performance of exchange and correlation (xc) functionals of the generalized gradient approximation (GGA) type and of the meta-GGA type in the calculation of chemical reactions is related to topological features of the electron density which, in turn, are connected to the orbital structure of chemical bonds within the Kohn-Sham (KS) theory. Seventeen GGA and meta-GGA xc functionals are assessed for 15 hydrogen abstraction reactions and 3 symmetrical S(N)2 reactions. Systems that are problematic for standard GGAs characteristically have enhanced values of the dimensionless gradient argument s(sigma)(2) with local maxima in the bonding region. The origin of this topological feature is the occupation of valence KS orbitals with an antibonding or essentially nonbonding character. The local enhancement of s(sigma)(2) yields too negative exchange-correlation energies with standard GGAs for the transition state of the S(N)2 reaction, which leads to the reduced calculated reaction barriers. The unwarranted localization of the effective xc hole of the standard GGAs, i.e., the nondynamical correlation that is built into them but is spurious in this case, wields its effect by their s(sigma)(2) dependence. Barriers are improved for xc functionals with the exchange functional OPTX as x component, which has a modified dependence on s(sigma)(2). Standard GGAs also underestimate the barriers for the hydrogen abstraction reactions. In this case the barriers are improved by correlation functionals, such as the Laplacian-dependent (LAP3) functional, which has a modified dependence on the Coulomb correlation of the opposite- and like-spin electrons. The best overall performance is established for the combination OLAP3 of OPTX and LAP3.