Letter to the editor: David William Cohen


Dear University Record,

I am writing regarding Mr. James Tobin’s story from the University of Michigan Heritage Project, published Jan. 23, 2023, titled “The fake news about James Neel.” I am disturbed by the sensationalist headline and the claimed “full story” linked. I was an active member of the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History (DPAH) at the time that the debate opened about Dr. Neel’s research in the Venezuelan Amazon, along with the research of Michigan anthropologist Professor Napoleon Chagnon.

In Spring 2001, the DPAH under its director, Professor Fernando Coronil, organized three well-attended colloquia to bring these discussions out of back channels and email chains and to the academic community of the University of Michigan. These colloquia were not organized to indict Neel or Chagnon, nor to function as a jury on the factual status of the book by Patrick Tierney — “Darkness in El Dorado” —the expected publication of which sparked the international controversy regarding the consequences of anthropological and medical research in the Amazon. Thirteen presentations from the colloquia were published in brief in The Journal of the International Institute, University of Michigan. Fall, 2001, vol. 9, no. 1. Pp. 6-7, 26-27. These conversations fostered by DPAH led to the provost producing a major public statement dated May 29, 2001, which represented a rethinking of the university’s position on the controversy.

Dr. Julie Skurski published an extensive account of the place of the University of Michigan in the events surrounding the publication of “Darkness in El Dorado: ‘Past Warfare: Ethics, Knowledge, and the Yanomami Controversy,’” “Anthrohistory: Unsettling Knowledge, Questioning Discipline,” eds. E. Murphy et al., University of Michigan Press, 2011 (121-139), a source unfortunately omitted by Mr. Tobin. Dr. Skurski’s account of the events at Michigan reflects the values affirmed in the provost’s May 29, 2001, statement.

Mr. Tobin’s article ignores both the broader story of this nationwide debate as it unfolded at the university and Provost Nancy Cantor’s statement of May 29, 2001, following the colloquia. This statement was re-published in the issue of The Journal of the International Institute noted above. Crucially, Mr. Tobin’s article ignored vital issues concerning how the subjects of research are taken into account within scholarly inquiry and scholarly debate, a consideration that was central to the colloquia.

Provost Cantor wrote, May 29, 2001: “Our discussions at Michigan have helped place the examination of these controversial issues within a scholarly and constructive framework directed at evaluating the impact of research sponsored by U.S. universities among peoples anywhere in the world and ensuring that priority be given to their welfare.”


David William Cohen

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and History

The University of Michigan


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